Hiralal is like a Filmed Version of a Second Rate Radio Play , Film Companion

Director: Arun Roy

Cast: Kinjal Nanda, Saswata Chatterjee, Kharaj Mukherjee

India’s first ad-film. First political documentary. In some ways even the first feature length moviemaker—and the eventual tragedy, a fire in a godown in North Calcutta that destroyed all his life’s works—the story of Hiralal Sen, one of India’s pioneering moviemakers, is the kind of story that feels like a loophole in film history, a story that must be told. Sen has been somewhat brought back into the discourse over the past decade—a forum on Indian silent cinema at the 2012 Kolkata Film Festival named after him, some articles, a possible book. But what better way to tell that story than in the medium that he helped take birth? Arun Roy’s Bengali film on the unsung film legend squanders that opportunity and gives us something so dull and un-cinematic that you want to beat yourself up for getting so ahead of yourself as to expect someone to make a biopic and do a decent job, in Bengali cinema no less, which has been stuck in its own creative limbo, worse than anything that even Hindi cinema serves up these days. 

You’d think that a subject like this might inspire some ingenuity in the filmmaking, something that tries to make optimum use of the art form, but the making is so tedious that I’m sure watching Sen’s lost reels on daily scenes of life in early 19th century Calcutta would’ve been more thrilling. Everything is so literal that the visuals are practically redundant. Sometimes you get the feeling that you’re watching a filmed version of a radio drama, only with zero dramatic tension. Not many of our films are cinematic anyway, you might argue, but at least the plot can advance in interesting ways. 

And the dramatic plot points of Hiralal Sen’s life are aplenty: starting with still photography, discovering the moving image at Stephenson’s tent cinema in Calcutta, how he got the idea to make a product commercial for Jabakusum hair oil. The backdrop is the changing landscape of Bengali entertainment at the time, with stories of legendary fallouts featuring doyens of the Bengali stage like Girish Ghosh (Kharaj Mukherjee). Particularly fascinating is how Sen filmed a rally brought out against the proposed partition of Bengali that was followed by a speech by Surendranath Banerjee—he got atop the treasury building to get an aerial view of the crowd that extended almost two miles (according to Sanjay Mukhopadhyay, film historian and a former Jadavpur University film studies professor, as quoted in this article). 

Working under limited budgets, Roy tries to dramatise it differently: he shows Sen (played by a decent Kinjal Nanda) on his way to the Classic theatre to film the play Alibaba and Forty Thieves, who, upon encountering the rally in the streets, is instinctively compelled to film it instead—this costs him the theatre gig, that marks the beginning of his decline. It says something about the film that, instead of emphasising Sen’s placement of the camera and the act of filming the rally itself, it choses to manufacture a false coincidence.  

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